King Abdullah of Jordan is one of the West's last remaining favorite sons in the Middle East. His English is impeccable, much better than his Arabic, the result of many years of good Western schooling. He has the image of the ultimate moderate, reasonable Arab leader, and he still adheres to the letter, much less so to the spirit of the peace treaty with Israel, signed by his late father, King Hussein.
The Hashemites of Jordan have long cultivated their image as benign autocrats, massacres like Black September of 1970 against their Palestinian enemies notwithstanding...
The King is popular in the Western press, and he likes to grant interviews in which His Royal, wise opinions receive much positive attention. Such was his interview with the Washington Post in October in which he candidly admitted that the Arab spring did not happen as a result of political problems, but because of poverty and unemployment. He should know, as these are exactly the issues plaguing his kingdom, which is still a poor country looking for brighter future than its current predicament.
Interestingly enough, the King did not mention the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a root cause of his and his Kingdom's problems, an omission that comes as a sharp contradiction to what he said in some of his other recent interviews. In them, he blasted Israel for its lack of effort in the peace process, attacked those in Israel (though never mentioning specific names) who relate to Jordan as the alternate Palestinian homeland -- the misguided Jordan-is-Palestine crowd of extreme Israeli right-wingers -- and went as far as threatening to use his military to prevent it from happening.
The rhetoric was harsh, and to many in Israel it seemed totally irrelevant, as the King knows full well that the current Israeli government completely rejects the Jordan-is-Palestine outcry. It seemed that the King has decided to assume a new role -- that of the regional pontificator-in-chief, particularly when it concerns Israel and its PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
By so doing, the King may have tried to wear shoes somewhat bigger than his real size, and he may have been tempted to do so, exactly because of his growing domestic problems, playing a typical Arab game of trying to divert attention from himself towards Israel and its policies. Up to a point, this is a risk-free game for the King, as he can be sure that the traditional Israeli guarantee for the survivability of the Hashemite Kingdom is still in place. But, things are changing, and even as smart a politician as the King cannot be sure that the Israelis will do for him in the future what they did so many times for his father; for example in that notorious Black September massacre, when Jordan was invaded by the Syrian army, and the Israelis threatened to intervene in order to save the King.
Dealing with Israel may be attractive for the King also because he simply has no effective response to his own internal problems. So, preaching his political gospel to foreigners is a good outlet. But is it really? Events in Jordan since the beginning of 2011, and particularly in the last three months clearly indicate that Jordan could be the next chip to fall in the current volatile Middle East political climate. The Islamic opposition, as well as Jordanians of various political stripes, are intensifying their protests against the regime and, on some occasions, against the monarch himself.
Charges of corruption involving Majdi Al-Yasin, the King's brother-in-law, are publicly uttered. One of the opposition groups outside of Jordan directly calling for the removal of the "Hashemite Occupation" of Jordan (the Hashemites are originally from the Hijaz, Saudi Arabia of today). This is an ironic reminder to the King, that Jordan may not be Palestine, but it is also not a country to be ruled by a "foreigner" like him. Among the swelling ranks of the opposition there are elements and personalities that one could not expect to see in the past. Members of some of the most loyal Bedouin tribes, such as the Banu Sakher and Banu Hassan, a former PM and head of intelligence, Ahmad Ubaydat, and retired army officers, who publicly express grudges against the King for being too lenient towards the Palestinians in the kingdom.
And with that we come to the real dark horse: the Palestinian population which constitutes two thirds of Jordan's people. In an ideal world, the Palestinians were expected to demand their right for self-determination also in Jordan, where they are the clear majority, and the King who preaches to Israel to recognize this right when it comes to the West Bank and Gaza should have supported it, but this is not going to happen...
What is happening is that King Abdullah's government just confirmed that Khaled Mashal, Hamas' supreme leader, is about to visit the Kingdom. According to unconfirmed reports, this visit may be the prelude for the transfer of Hamas' entire leadership to Jordan. Really? Jordan of the moderate King, who goes the extra mile to convince us all that Jordan is not Palestine? It seems that if the reports are correct, the King is scoring more than one own goal.
Damascus under Bashar Assad was the home of the Hamas leadership until recently, when the latter realized that being in bed with this murderous regime may be detrimental to their standing in the Arab world. There are many reasons why King Abdullah may like to host Mashal and company -- to use them as a leverage against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, or to accommodate the requests of some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which may have asked him to do so. Possibly, and more likely, it's to indicate to his Palestinian residents that his anti-Israel credentials are intact. The problem is that the King himself said, that the issue in Jordan is about the economy. How can Mashal help him with that? On top of all that is the strong possibility that once in Amman, the Hamas leadership could become the catalyst for a future eruption of Palestinian grievances in the kingdom. The King may believe that he can tame the shrew, but can he really?
And last but not least, what will happen if Hamas finds itself embroiled again in armed conflict with Israel, a country with which Jordan has a peace treaty? King Abdullah may think that he knows the answers. The Middle East's shifting sands could still prove otherwise.